A L Kennedy's strengths are those of a reporter or a diarist, rather than a novelist. In her presumably autobiographical tale of a Scottish girl - a lonely childhood, an undirected adulthood centred on a community centre, a kind of relationship with a nice woolly chap - the moments to treasure are not those where Margaret muses on the state of the nation or people's abilities to love one another. But her minutely precise depictions of urban violence sometimes spring into surreal life. A thief walks through a plate-glass window and 'The crash was almost liquid, huge. . .'; a man is beaten up while Mozart is playing, and there are 'fat notes cool within his head.'
SUCKERS by Anne Billson, Pan, pounds 4.99
Anne Billson's novel about the underside of urban life is a brash and upbeat look at Britain in the Eighties. Dora, a creative consultant who moves in a depressing milieu of photographers, models and image-makers, is amazed to find that some of them aren't just metaphorical bloodsuckers. Here are real vampires in lizard-skin shoes and leather gloves, hanging out in plush bars and matte black offices and finally getting their violent comeuppances with garlic, stakes and diamante crucifixes. Billson only works the plot for its cartoonish potential - a vampire drowns in a bath and she notes: 'The water was thick and stagnant, and there was a lot of red froth on the surface. She was under it with her hair floating like seaweed and the chair-leg sticking out of what looked like a gallon of blackcurrant jelly spread all over the middle of her chest.' It's a long way from the chilly elegance of Bram Stoker's Dracula to this gory mayhem.
THE BATTLE OF POLTAVA by Peter Englund, Gollancz, pounds 20
This is rather more than the description of a battle, and it is pretty much a cult book in Sweden, where Poltava is a legendary name. When Charles XII, tired of fending off the encroaching Russian armies, decided to march on Moscow, he was met by Peter the Great's forces at Poltava, in the Ukraine. What followed is described in remarkable and bracing detail by Englund, who also brings a cool and scathing touch to his discussion of the stragglers: the wagons full of wounded, the fleeing children. The moment when the battle is lost - 'All our foot are defeated' - is both poignant and a heck a relief.